A Glance at the Ukraine Crisis’s Impact on Nuclear Weapons Considerations

This week, eyes are on Ukraine to see whether the presidential election held on Sunday will soon lead to more stability; while many Ukrainians look ahead to the challenge of grappling with the problems that led to the crisis – both internal and external. The crisis intensified dynamics of a deteriorating relationship between NATO and Russia, where prospects had already been bleak for nuclear arms control. The crisis has even led some to call for re-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons in transatlantic security.

Initially, Russia’s invasion of Crimea spurred some commentators to criticize Ukraine’s 1994 decision to return to Russia the nuclear weapons that had been based on its territory as a legacy of the Soviet Union; contending that a nuclear Ukraine could have deterred Russia from invading. (In a recent UPI article, BASIC Senior Fellow Ward Wilson presents several reasons why nuclear weapons would not have been very useful for that purpose.) To be sure, one of the reasons Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons was Russia’s pledge to observe its territorial integrity, as reflected in the Budapest Memorandum. Recent events have thrown into greater doubt the previous commitments made by key powers, and Ukraine’s newly elected President, Petro Poroshenko, said that he will work to form a replacement for the agreement in an effort to strengthen security guarantees for his country.

For NATO’s posture, some have recommended moving U.S. tactical (sub-strategic) nuclear weapons eastward onto the territory of new member states, which would be part of a package of measures that would have the Alliance bolster forces closer to Russia. Newsweek interviewed Eastern Europeans who said that they would welcome more involvement with the Alliance’s nuclear forces; and that NATO nuclear deterrence has become more important overall because of the crisis. The sentiment is not entirely surprising as it was mainly down to Eastern European allies (and France) for putting the brakes on further reducing the tactical arsenal during the Alliance’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review back in 2012, and links future reductions to making progress with Russia over addressing its arsenal.

Last week, however, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen dampened speculation that the Alliance would make moves to base nuclear bombs in places like the Baltic states. He said during a press conference on May 19 that, at this point, he does not expect NATO to request the movement of nuclear forces to the territories of its newer members.

The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act conveyed the Alliance’s intention not to deploy nuclear weapons on the territories of new member states, and articulated broader expectations for both sides to contribute to a peaceful Euro-Atlantic region and usher in a new era where their cooperation would grow in support of mutual interests. Those aspirations have been difficult to meet, and the recent crisis has revealed that wounds have not healed properly since the end of the Cold War.

The Ukraine crisis could still intensify, and also contribute to more tensions between NATO and Russia; and possibly motivate some within NATO to advocate for accentuating the role of nuclear weapons. Although it is uncertain exactly how Russia would respond to NATO moving nuclear weapons onto new members’ territories, the risk exists for such a change to escalate tensions in a very dangerous way.

With more tools than ever at Russia and NATO’s disposal for coping with conflict, and with other ways for NATO to reassure its members, reaching the point where one of them brings nuclear weapons deeper into the equation would undo the work of allies and Russia over the past 20-plus years. Such moves would also send negative signals to other countries that see themselves under threat, and could even set back the global nuclear nonproliferation regime – developments which clearly would not be in the interests of NATO or Russia.

-The views expressed belong to those of the author.

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